In Search of Nothing
It's hard to visualise nothing, the absence of any "thing". This concept has been kicked around by philosophers since the dawn of rational thought. Enter one Lawrence Krauss, renowned Physicist and cosmologist - Lawrence is one of those that has a lot to say about the concept of nothingness.
His life’s work is built around it. In 2009 he gave a talk in front of a small audience entitled A Universe from Nothing that’s now accumulated over 2 million views. The popularity of this video spurred Krauss to write a book of the same name which Richard Dawkins has called the most important scientific book since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
A Universe from Nothing explores how the universe as we know it arose from at type of bizarre ‘quantum nothingness’ and in the wake of the book’s success Krauss has rapidly become a poster-child for a new type of cosmology, setting off a war of words with the religious and philosophical establishment. He’s even making his mark on pop culture, from being retweeted by Miley Cyrus to appearing in Werner Herzog’s latest film Salt and Fire. With his increased notoriety it seems that Krauss is extending his influence in all directions, and right now this might be the best thing that could happen to science.
There’s a lot of exciting things going on in the world of physics right now. Gravitational waves potentially being detected for the first time and the brightest supernova ever detected ASASSN-151h was also recently found. Could you elaborate on those findings and how much excitement it’s generating?
Yeah, it could be an incredible year if all goes well. The LIGO apparatus in Washington and Louisiana, which is the biggest gravitational wave interferometer in the world, is looking for gravitational waves from the most cataclysmic astrophysical events around.
It has been upgraded to the point where it should be sensitive to such events in our galaxy or galaxies that aren’t too far away and there have been rumours that maybe they’ve already seen something. So the community is very excited about it. If indeed they have found something then it will open up a totally new window on the universe because gravitational waves will allow us to see literally to the edge of black holes and understand and explore gravity in incredibly strong regimes where we haven’t been able to see it before. I think it will become the astronomy of the 21st Century.
At the same time there’s another important thing happening. The Large Hadron Collider has been turned on again and has also been upgraded. As you know it discovered the Higgs particle a few years ago but now we’re looking beyond the Higgs to try and understand why forces have the nature that they do and why particles have the masses that they do. Recently there was evidence from the Large Hadron Collider of a new totally unexpected elementary particle. If it really is true (and at this point we don’t know) then it will force us to change a lot of ideas about where we’re going in particle physics. That result may not prove to be accurate but there could easily be a result like it in the next year or so.
And as you said the most powerful supernova ever discovered was seen, it was about six hundred billion times the brightness of our sun. So every time we use our new telescopes we find new and amazing things. The universe is a big place and an old place where strange and rare events happen all the time.
You work within many different areas. You’re a professional advocate for science and reason, a cosmologist, a public intellectual, a physicist, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University studying many different kinds of origins of life in the universe. Does that about cover it?
I’m also chairman of the board at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which is trying and has tried since 1945 to alert the public to the dangers of nuclear war and other existential threats that we need to take care of. We run the Doomsday Clock which represents a countdown to potential global catastrophe. Every year we unveil the new time of the clock. Earlier this week it was set for 2016 at three minutes to midnight. I think it’s an incredibly important thing to alert people to the dangers of nuclear war and climate change. So that’s something else I do that’s important to me.
My life is different every day because I have a lot of hats. Usually, it’s hectic. I’m also doing work today for the Origins Project which looks at everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of consciousness and beyond. I’m a very busy man, in principle at least. But I’m basically pretty lazy so if it didn’t fill up my time with lots of things I think I might not do anything.
I read your most recent book A Universe From Nothing. A book with some very weighty topics about the universe, the crux of it based on the idea that our universe arose out of ‘nothing’.
Richard Dawkins called the book potentially the most important scientific book since Darwin’s Origin of Species. But out of all the countless interviews you’ve done related to the book, one statement stuck out for me – “Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything because it’s totally inexplicable.” Can you elaborate on that point?
Physics progresses most when it’s presented with paradoxes. The major developments of the Twentieth Century, from relativity to quantum mechanics all involve paradoxes, things that previously seemed inexplicable. The energy of empty space is something that we simply don’t understand at all. Empty space should have zero energy because there’s nothing there, but quantum mechanically things are different. We know that empty space isn’t so empty.
There’s a bubbling brew of virtual particles bumping in and out of existence all the time. If you take a bit of space and get rid of all the particles and radiation you’ll find it weighs something, and we don’t have the slightest understanding why. But clearly it’s going to determine the future of the universe and it means there’s something fundamental about both quantum mechanics and gravity that we need to understand that we don’t. Potentially not only will understanding that tell us the future of the universe but it will probably shed light on the very beginning of the universe where quantum gravitational processes may have led to the creation of our universe out of nothing.
Curiously though you’ve previously stated that asking what actually took place before the Big Bang is illogical.
Well, we think that every ‘after’ has a ‘before’ but general relativity tells us that space and time are tied together intimately and therefore when space came into existence time may also have come into existence. So the question of what happened before the Big Bang literally may make no sense. Science forces us to think of new ways to define questions because old ways may not be useful. It could be that there is no time before the Big Bang but that doesn’t mean we can’t understand anything about it. It just means the concepts we have to think about are not well described by things like time or space.
Asking good questions is really a large part of what science is all about. Scientists are good at asking questions and being driven to the right questions by nature. And to some extent, that’s where philosophy can play a role. Philosophy has been useful in those areas of science where the questions aren’t well defined. Philosophy can help define questions that are taken up by scientists and then move beyond the realm of philosophy. So as long as we keep thinking of questions, they can guide our investigations.
You had a discussion with Sam Harris not so long ago where you said, “comprehending such large issues such as the emergence of something from nothing violates common sense all of the time. Quantum mechanics which governs the behaviour of our universe on very small scales is full of such craziness which defies common sense in the traditional sense.” Are we cognitively equipped to answer questions of such magnitude about the universe?
Well we don’t know. That’s the great thing about science. No one knows what our limits are and we won’t know until we try. So far we haven’t come up against those limits and maybe one day we will but the only way to know is keep trying. Common sense is not a guide to how the universe works. The great thing about science is that it takes us beyond the realm of the familiar. Certainly we should be skeptical but we should also be guided by experiment and force our beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around.
There are lots of questions that remain profound questions. Amazingly we may be able to answer some such as, is our universe unique? It’s the question that Einstein once asked when he said, “did God have a choice in the creation of the universe?” He didn’t mean God.
What he meant was, is there a unique set of laws of physics? Does the universe have to be the way it is or could there be many universes with ours as just one possibility? That question is central and we’re actually making progress and may eventually be able to answer it.
You’re talking about the multiverse theory?
Exactly. It turns out if we can see gravitational waves from the beginning of time then that may be able to give us a handle on whether there really is a multiverse.
There are other questions I’d like to answer such as, what is the nature of the dominant stuff that makes up the universe? Why does empty space have energy? What’s the ultimate state of matter? Do black holes exist?
"If you take a bit of space and get rid of all the particles and radiation you’ll find it weighs something, and we don’t have the slightest understanding why."
Lawrence Krauss on nothingness
We have a presidential election coming up with some very interesting and questionable candidates, to say the least. You’ve talked about the importance of science in issues such as the environment, national security, health and energy. Are you worried that there’s not enough science present in policy making?
Of course I’m worried about it! I get mad, I get worried, and I write as a result of that. I think we’re far from using empirical data to guide public policy and the presidential election is a perfect example. We have one party, in particular, that seems to be anti-science. I’m actually trying to get a debate between the presidential candidates on the issues that really matter such as health, the environment and energy. Science issues basically.
But those issues are not being addressed at all, in the midst of a lot of hyperbole and ideology and fear. It’s really important in these times, where there are great challenges such as climate change, that we enter the 21st century with an open mind. But no one will address those issues if they’re afraid to recognise that they exist. One of the reasons I write and speak is that I’m fortunate enough to have a public voice and I can try to have an impact on some level to get people talking and hopefully acting on those issues.
Let’s turn to your crusade against organised religion, something you’ve been very vocal about during your career. In a piece you wrote for the New Yorker, you said, “Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance.”
Yes. I think Richard Dawkins put it nicely in the recent movie we did, The Unbelievers. He basically said that evolution helped our brains develop to be able to do certain things and now we have to live with many different challenges. We learned how to avoid lions on the savanna but not do quantum mechanics and not to foresee, to plan for the century ahead.
I think its imperative for us to realise that we can’t rely on things like straightforward common sense when we’re dealing with the universe as a whole. We also have to be sceptical about our approach to things instead of being certain when we haven’t done any research as politicians do. One has to be sceptical about what one reads and hears and the public when thinking about who to vote for the need to be sceptical in that way too.
A lot of evangelicals are reporting that they love Donald Trump’s honesty. Well, that’s an amazing thing for a man who clearly creates fabrications all the time. To be impressed by his honesty means you’re not being sceptical of what you hear. And we need to be sceptical if we’re going to make any progress.
Does the word militant atheist irritate you?
Yes, it irritates me a lot because it’s meaningless. It’s a term that’s been created to minimise and marginalise something that is prevalent throughout the world and make it seem as if it’s somehow controversial or inappropriate.
In every other area of human activity we celebrate questioning but somehow when you question religion you’re a militant. What it really describes is people who are openly willing to discuss their thoughts about religion, and part of the problem of society is that we’re not supposed to. Why are we not supposed to? Because it’s sacred. But in a healthy society nothing is sacred.
I’ve watched a lot of dialogues you’ve had with many religious apologists. Why do you care so much? What really frustrates you about people having such strong religious beliefs?
It’s not religion I care about, it’s reality. What bothers me is that far too often religious dogma gets in the way of people’s willingness to celebrate and accept the real world for what it is. Building a society on myth and superstition leads us to make bad decisions. But my major interest is in getting people to be amazed by the real universe. It’s not about putting down religion.
I only got involved in this argument about religion because it was interfering with education. There were people who were trying to get rid of the teaching of evolution in high schools. They were attacking science because somehow they felt that science got in the way of their belief for god. So I was defending science.
But since then I’ve come to realise that there are much more insidious things that religion is responsible for. I get letters from people all the time who have been made to feel like they’re bad people for simply asking questions.
They find suddenly they’re unable to believe the stories they’re told and they’re often ostracized because of that. People feeling alone and bad for , recognising that they don’t believe in certain stories. Again in any other area of human activity, you wouldn’t be told you’re bad for not accepting stories, it would be a discussion. Religion should not be the basis of morality. The sacred books have no morality that I can see.
"A lot of evangelicals are reporting that they love Donald Trump’s honesty. Well that’s an amazing thing for a man who clearly creates fabrications all the time."
On his crusade against organised religion
Richard Dawkins said of religion and its influence on culture, “the religious lobby is getting desperate to the point where it looks like a wounded animal and it’s in its death throes.” Is that something you’d agree with?
I wish it were the case. There’s no doubt in the first world the belief in god is monotonically decreasing. The fact that fewer people are identifying with any specific religion causes waves of fear and indignation in the heads of those religious institutions and causes them to lash out. They feel threatened. I think the vocal need to combat people like Richard and myself comes out of a fear that they’re losing ground.
Imagining the demise of religion then, can you conceive of a new kind of spirituality emerging?
I can conceive of a lot of things but I try not to make predictions, except for events two trillion years from now, because then no one will be around to check if I was right. I find spirituality when I look at a Hubble space telescope picture and when I see the details of a cell. If spirituality is awe and wonder and appreciation of a vast cosmos beyond ourselves, then science is full of that. Religion provides lots of things, if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be so successful. The question is, can we have those things without fictional dogmas? And I think we can.
Let’s turn to the future for a moment; I’m interested in what you’ve said about the possibility of building quantum mechanical computers in the future and how the evolution of technology will bring us to an advanced level of humanity. Your friend Frank Wilczek said that what interests him is that computers will do physics very differently to how we do physics.
I agree with Frank. There’s a lot of fear about the rise of artificial intelligence but I think it provides incredible opportunities to enhance what we can do. It’s entirely possible that computers will be able to understand the universe much better than we can. Not just be programmed to answer our questions, but invent much better questions than we can ourselves.
So you don’t agree with Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk about the imminent dangers of artificial intelligence?
I think there are things to worry about, especially in relation to military applications. But for the most part artificial intelligence will be a great help to humanity. We have to be wary but I’m more excited by the possibilities than afraid of the dangers.
So what are you fearful of in your line of work?
I’m fearful that the enlightenment that began four centuries ago will end. That fear and superstition and hatred and ideology and xenophobia will take over and lead to ignorance and injustice.
To lighten the tone slightly, when someone like Miley Cyrus retweets you, you enter a whole new realm of public consciousness. What do you make of that?
I’m honoured. I feel lucky to have had an impact that bridges the gap between science and popular culture. I was delighted and surprised by that and I’m very pleased to be working beyond books, making a movie, getting involved in a number of things that try to reach out into the world of popular culture. I’m involved in some more movie projects. There’s a new Werner Herzog film out next year that I’m acting in.
Finally, I have to ask you this. Is it true Richard Feynman taught you how to dance?
Oh my goodness, you’ve done your research. [Laughing] You know that was quite important. Going out onto the dance-floor as a young man is more terrifying than many other things. And it’s representative of other things too, of both seeking adventure and not being afraid of what other people think. Those are things that guided Feynman, and I use to guide myself now. He taught me to let go and be free.
All photos courtesy of http://krauss.faculty.asu.edu/
Because the sound when you wake up in the morning is like no other city on earth, and because you can walk all day through fascinating alleys and know you will end up back where you started eventually.
The former because I love that they give a very subjective view of reality, and the latter because they free themselves from even that.
Read it many times when young. Taught me to appreciate absurdity and also the value of unexpected juxtapositions when writing.